Thursday, October 14, 2010

Invitational Forgiveness

What does it mean to let go, to deliberately put an injury in the past and relinquish all sense of grievance and injury? We may think immediately of the concept of forgiveness but this concept is all to often so loaded with religious baggage that it quickly becomes an another difficult burden rather than a potential for release. The last thing we want to hear when suffering under the real or imagined injuries done to us is that we are somehow obligated to forgive and just let it go. Yet in the midst of a world where imperfect people constantly rub up against each other in various imperfect ways, there has to be some way of changing our feelings and attitudes toward those who wrong us so that we can all continue to live together.

One of the best recent non-religious definitions of forgiveness comes from the writings of Trudy Govier, a philosopher and a professor at the University of Lethbridge. In her 2006 book, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgment, Reconciliation and the Politics of Sustainable Peace, Govier challenges some commonly accepted stereotypes of forgiveness and presents a form of forgiveness that can be very inspirational for the work of restorative justice.

Govier defines forgiveness as bilateral, unilateral or invitational. Bilateral forgiveness is the form of forgiveness that comes to mind most readily. The wrongdoer renders an apology with a plea for forgiveness, the appropriate remorse is shown and on this basis forgiveness is offered. But what if the wrongdoer refuses to acknowledge the wrong or what if the specific wrongdoer is unknown and can never show the appropriate remorse? Does this mean that forgiveness and letting go can never happen? As Govier notes, forgiveness that is dependent on the attitudes and actions of the wrongdoer may never provide the kind of release and closure the victim needs.

On the other hand, forgiveness can be solely an act of self-repair and self-healing, something that bears no relationship to whatever the wrongdoer may or may not do. This is what Govier defines as unilateral forgiveness. This may be a useful therapeutic tool but does nothing to restore relationships and reconcile hurting people to each other.

Another option is what Govier terms as invitational forgiveness. This can be done unilaterally and does not depend on the actions or words of the wrongdoer, but it is done in such a way that it invites a response. Instead of the traditional path from acknowledgment to apology to forgiveness to reconciliation, an invitational forgiveness may move in the other direction from the offer of forgiveness toward a greater acknowledgment of their actions by the wrongdoer(s). Govier points to Nelson Mandela’s forgiveness of South African white society as one of the best known examples of this type of forgiveness. By his actions and words, Mandela invited South Africans to engage in a deeper reflection and acknowledgment of the harms of apartheid society. The offer of forgiveness was given not just as a precious gift but as a challenge.

How can this idea of invitational forgiveness shape the practice and the study of restorative justice? How do we offer forgiveness and encourage forgiveness in a way that creates space for deeper reflection and acknowledgment by those who hear it?

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